Healed by a Sambo’s Hot Dog
by: Bill LaBrie

“Daddy,” I gasped, woozy-eyed “I’m sick and only one thing can cure me”. There was joy here. I had a scratchy throat and the beginning of a headache. My nose was running. I knew what was coming. The only way to avert it: A pilgrimage to the holy site. “What’s that, Billy?” “A hotdog from Sambo’s.”

Twenty minutes or so later Dad parked our Oldsmobile outside the Sambo’s that used to be near Indian School Road on the main drag through Scottsdale, Arizona.

While I sat in the booth and wheezed I was comforted by the equivalent of the stations of the cross — the colorful back-lit mosaics above the counter that depicted the story of Sambo and the Tiger.

Finally, the waitress arrived. Before me on an oval plate lay the sacramental hotdog ordered off the kid’s menu, split lengthwise and grilled with just a hint of char on the skin side. There was a characteristic mist of cooking oil on it that I found most salubrious. Yeah. I just said “salubrious”.

I applied the blessed condiments of ketchup and mustard. My enfeebled hand grasped the holy hotdog. Within minutes, my soul was elevated by its restorative powers, and I was healed. As far as I knew, I had been restored by the Great Lord Sambo, in whose chapel I prayed.

It was only the latest miracle I had witnessed at Sambo’s. I wondered if I was the only one who knew the powers that lie within those Googie sanctuaries filled with hash browns, ham steaks and biscuits. Little did we know that Lord Sambo was near the height of his power, and was destined to soon fall.

The calendar had just turned to 1978. Times were changing. From its height of 1,117 locations in 1979, Sambos was less than three years from declaring bankruptcy. The Sambo’s locations started to disappear, one after another. If there were other adherents to the faith, they weren’t doing enough to support it.

It didn’t help that in 1957 Sambo’s founders Sam Battistone, Sr. and Newell Bohnett had taken the happy (at the time) coincidence of their combined names and explicitly associated it with a story that had racist overtones in the minds of many. Lesson: be careful how you co-brand.

In 1987 my father had decided to throw away his long-awaited inheritance on a failing background music company. Most of the worthless equipment we acquired consisted in obsolete 3M Cantata tape cartridge players, which were divinely-engineered instruments of torture that played the hits of 1937 in various shades of muted trombone. It was even worse when the tape speed wasn’t steady, as was the case with most of ours. We needed parts.

“Yeah, we have a whole room full of those!” coughed the guy on the phone from Fontana or Fullerton or Fountain Valley or some other LA suburb that starts with an F. “Come and get ‘em. We pulled them outta . . . uhh. . . some restaurant chain that went broke. Yeah.”

And in the storage room I beheld hundreds of the hardwood boxes — relics of a forgotten faith — all covered in a thin sheen of rancid cooking oil, each one bearing an asset control tag that indicated it had once been a sacred vessel of the altar, a relic of the Great Lord Sambo.